Diamanda Gal's has been called "the Bride of Satan," "the Diva of Disease," and "a cross between Elvira and Morticia Adams" -- and that's just by music journalists. The classically trained pianist with a three and a half octave range -- the staggering use of which regularly inspires comparisons to Greek opera singer Maria Callas -- is known for her controversial (to say the least) opinions and her you've-got-to-see-them-to-believe-them concerts featuring an arresting combination of performance art, political protest, and punk bravado.
Gal's is perhaps most widely recognized for The Plague Mass, which she performed covered in cow's blood at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City in 1990. Considered by many to be her masterwork, the Plague Mass is drawn from excerpts of her trilogy of albums collectively entitled The Masque of the Red Death begun by Gal's in the early '80s at the dawning of the AIDS epidemic. The piece serves as a scathing indictment of both the Roman Catholic Church and society at large for ignoring and condemning those suffering from or killed by AIDS -- including her brother and many of her close friends.
Never one to mince words, Gal's is infamous for her biting, often shocking commentary on politics, culture, and art and her interview with Out.com certainly does not disappoint. She phoned from Spain -- where her current European tour had just landed -- to talk about her new live cover album of homicidal love songs, why she thinks Elton John is a 'horrible little midget corpse,' and the similarities between Britney Spears' voice and radioactive worms.
Out: I heard someone refer to you as a 'gay icon' yesterday -- does that title work for you?
Diamanda Gal's: That's delightful! There cannot be a greater honor bestowed upon a female and I'll tell you why. With the exception of those queers who are avidly buying diapers and emulating straight culture -- to be a gay icon means people who have a disposable income by straight standards are spending it on you rather than spending it on fucking diapers. And the fact is that most of my male friends are gay and we have a similar sense of humor. I'm not talking about those 'furniture queens' who despise me and whom I despise. It's a good thing. I'll put it this way -- it puts you in a much more immortal embrace than it does to be a -- heaven forbid -- straight icon, whatever that is. [Laughs] And because my brother was gay -- it's really nice. Then on the other hand there are queers that we really hate. If I heard that Elton John was following my every move I'd get really depressed. I talked to this queer the other day and he said, 'Don't you know about Elton?' And I said, 'No! Tell me everything!' And he said, 'Elton -- he's the only piano player that uses playbacks for his performances.'
Really? Is that true?
I just shrieked! I said, 'No wonder he's so jealous of Madonna.' Because she does playback perfectly. He must just despise her because at least she's a singer doing playback, not a piano player doing playback. There cannot be anything more ignominious than that.
Especially when that's his bread and butter.
And it's dreadful piano playing! And he's a dreadful, dreadful, horrible little midget corpse! Just horrendous. I can see how someone who's that ugly -- who suddenly showed up 15 years into the epidemic when it was too late to save practically anyone -- who suddenly said, "I'm gay" and nobody cared -- would be completely jealous of Madonna. I'm sure he spends hours at night howling in the bathroom about how he can't look like her. I love that thought. It just thrills my soul.
You've mentioned in the past that your drag queen friends were really the first ones to champion your voice.
It was an odd remembrance several years ago that I was singing with them on the street and one of them said, 'You should be singing!' and It was kind of an incredible thing because this was from a drag queen who was pretty vicious when she didn't like something. At the time we were listening to everybody from Stylistics to Sylvester -- everything around that time when Chaka Kahn was really singing. That was a time when people were really singing. I mean singing singing. I learned a lot from living with these broads. There was a lot about them that I wanted to emulate because they would be able to walk down the street with a knife and not be afraid of anyone, and you'd forget it was because they were a man. [Laughs] I'd say, 'What the fuck is it that you have that I'm missing?' I would realize that for one thing they were a foot taller for me and for another thing they were three feet wider than me. They were very big, very tough drag queens. These were real criminals. They were not criminals because they were drag queens -- they were criminals and also drag queens. It made me a little bit more intolerant of more gentrified drag queens. Like certain kinds of New York artist drag queens? They make me want to just cut their faces with a box cutter.
Like the ones who are hosting drag bingo?
What? What is this? I knew I'd learn something new today. Tell me!
There are places you can go and play bingo and it's hosted by drag queens. It's often a lot of straight tourists.
Oh no. That would hurt me! I don't know if bingo would hurt me but the combination of -- I only mention that because Murray Hill is a really sweet person and I met her once and liked her and she does that in the East Village with Hattie [Hathaway]. And I love Hattie, so I'm not going to say anything about that -- but any kind of gentrified drag action is not my scene. Drag queens are just like any other group. Any drag queen is going to be different from the next. There are some drag queens that really hate women and I really hate them. And then there are some that are just lovable. And then there are some that are both. I have some friends that are pretty much both. But they get it from me when they act up. It's like, 'Watch yourself bitch. Just fucking watch it. You might have studied my shit bitch, but you know what? You aren't a woman, so fuck you!' It has to get ugly but then we're laughing at the same time. Anyone who hangs out with a drag queen and doesn't have a sense of humor can just forget it. And if a drag queen doesn't have a sense of humor she should just forget it because the whole idea in the first place is eminently laughable. It better be! [Laughs] Unless you hit the rag once a month sister, don't be talking to me about how you're a fucking 'natural woman' -- just shut up.
Tell me about your new album of 'tragic and homicidal love songs.' How did you go about picking which songs you wanted to cover on Guilty Guilty Guilty?
If the song hits me over the head and I feel I have to perform it, then that's when I do it. If I don't feel that way, then I don't do it. The song is constantly with you in the morning, in the night, you're hearing it, it haunts you. And it also relates to a person -- you're hearing it and it reminds you of this person. And the song is so sad it -- there are a lot of men that I've known and I'd like to call them or I'd like to see them but I know that's not going to happen. But I still have a relationship to them through these songs. I would prefer not to at the time -- but there's this song... [Laughs] There's this fucking song and it's as if the person is in the room kind of taunting me saying 'I'm still alive,' and I'm thinking 'Listen -- you are only alive by virtue of the $100,000 in bail money that I don't have, otherwise you'd be fucking dead!' It's kind of a reverse hex because it's like 'I can't afford to kill you. You're still in my fucking head. And even if I did kill you, you'd still be in my fucking head.' And that's what those songs are to me -- they're omens. That's why I do them. Otherwise I would just say 'eh.' All of these songs are like that -- almost every one of them has a person or a few of them have the same person associated with them.
It was almost 25 years ago that you started working on The Plague Mass. Obviously, as a country we're now at such a different place in terms of AIDS and our understanding of the disease -- and at the same time, it sometimes feels like we haven't made much progress, or that we're going in reverse in terms of education and responsibility. What are your thoughts about what's happening -- or not -- in America regarding the epidemic?
You have all these young guys going into the bathhouses and having sex with speed. The fact is there is nobody in the world that would have stopped me from taking speed at 18 -- forget it. Forget it! Speed is speed and that's a part of American life. And it's a part of life and that's it. People can go and do their fucking yoga and all that shit but speed is speed. So, instead of doing a double fucking fuck on people that take speed and saying, 'You deserve to get the fucking AIDS virus because you're a fucking asshole who's still taking drugs,' why don't they do something intelligent and mix a cocktail of speed and prophylactic antivirals? Because the judgment call is worthless, it's a waste of time, it's useless, it's exactly what the Catholic Church was doing when they were saying people shouldn't use condoms. Because they think if you're getting fucked in the ass you deserve to die. If you're fucking someone in the ass then you deserve to die. That isn't news to all the women who had to use fucking hangers and have abortions because they got pregnant -- who died in all these poor parts of Mexico and were dying from all these blood infections. So that's something that bothers me. Even when I was down at the David Barton gym a while ago, right next to the gym there was a sign about people who take speed and the correlation with AIDS and I just thought, 'Oh yeah yeah,' and it's like the correlation with heroin too. And let's make the correlation with this and that. And it's like look man, you know what? You may not think that speed's good for somebody and you may think blah bitty blah -- but that's not the issue! Why don't people stop making these judgments about the drugs? I feel what hasn't been done is the research -- obviously it isn't going to be FDA approved ever -- to come up with cocktails that you can get in a bathhouse or get in a bar -- 'We know you're going to be doing speed so here,' -- like giving syringes out. So you're going to take some speed tonight take some Tenofovir, which is a prophylactic antiviral. I took it -- I took a bunch of it -- I made myself an experimental subject. I did it a few years ago. I said, 'I think I'll put myself on the front end and the back end of this research project and take Tenofovir,' and it certainly worked for me. There are all kinds of political discussions about this and that but nonetheless the drug has been seen to be very effective. So why don't we have it here? Do you get it?
I guess a lot of it is tied up in big business and pharmaceutical companies. There have always been those rumors that they could have stopped AIDS -- or at least slowed it down -- a long time ago but they just didn't because they wanted to make money off of the drugs and they were pleased with the particular populations that were being wiped out.
Oh absolutely! For example, women could have had these emergency pregnancy pills that you can take once or twice right after sex a lot sooner than they were made available. Instead they were forced on this constant diet of these shitty fucking pills which are just lethal. When I took them when I was 18 I was constantly sick. Constantly sick! It was this hormone poisoning. And why not have it tailor made to the individual? It was like 'If you're going to have sex then you take this, bitch. You fucking take this.' And then they had these thing where women had to put these wires up there.
You mean IUDs?
Yeah. That's it. I never used it. I mean we know these doctors -- I saw some of these doctors when I was very young and they were vicious.
I heard the IUD was invented by a man in his garage.
[Laughs] I wouldn't be surprised if he got it from something in his car. He probably tried it out on a few women in the garage. It's horrifying. That's sort of what I mean about the punishment in our country for having sex. It's just extreme. Here we have at the same time young gay men being told not to take speed. Then you have older straight men who get -- by virtue of insurance -- something that is literally speed: Viagra. They get it with a doctor's handshake, they get it like, 'Oh you poor thing! I understand you're stressed. I understand you're tired at the end of the day.' They don't say that to a young fag who wants to go to a fucking bar. Like, 'I understand that you're working this really hard job, and you're working 12 hours a day and at the end of the day you want to go home and fuck your boyfriend, so here's some speed.' Hey -- you don't hear that! Oh no. But some old fuck who wants to fuck some 20 year old blonde and show her that he's Joe Namath or whatever goes out there and gets a prescription for Viagra. It makes me fucking sick. They don't fucking judge these motherfuckers. As long as you've got a golf club with you that's it.
Have you considered staging The Plague Mass again?
Of course. But I have insisted to everyone that I am not doing it with a fucking tape. I'm doing it with musicians like I did it at St. John the Divine, and I was only paid twice to do it that way. I said, 'Look, you raise the money to see it done right or I'm not going to do it.' That's the problem that always exists with Defixiones, with Schrei X, with Vena Cava [the more elaborate and political works of Gal's's] -- people don't want to pay to stage this kind of work. They only want to pay for the voice and piano work. And I love the doing the voice and piano work, but the problem is I also love doing the other work. First of all the other work frightens people. And it frightens promoters because they think they can't afford it. And it's stupid because people want to see it.
Yeah -- I think people are dying to see it.
They are. Especially in South America, and Spain, and Italy. So what I've done is I've said, 'What are you going to pay for? You're going to pay for the voice and piano? All right.' So now if I perform in Italy and I get audiences of 2,000? Fine. Beautiful. Now I can start saying, 'No. This is what I want to do.' So that's what I've been working at in all my work through Europe -- more than America because America is still a hard nut for me to crack. It's going to take me a lot longer to get through to America. But I try. I do what I can there. But in Europe I've gotten pretty close to the point where I can call a lot of shots and that's why I always say if you're doing work that is not pop music per se, you have to stick around a lot longer to get it done.
People make you pay your dues.
Oh yeah. If you think about composers -- male composers because women composers are never discussed -- male composers would generally not even be recognized until they were in their 50s and 60s. So in a sense I'm in that tradition where a lot of people who have been innovators in music don't even get recognition for a very long time. But then they start to feel alive in a way that they weren't able to before because they get to have their work performed. They get to do their most important work. Let's say before they could only have quartets performed. Or maybe they had to perform their own work like Liszt or Chopin -- they had to perform their own work all the time -- and then they would have orchestras perform the work later on. But for people with new music, it's very hard to get the music performed. And so with me I think it's the same way. It's like, OK, you've seen me on stage breaking my motherfucking ass for you guys all over the world, all these fucking tours, doing a tour that starts in Italy and then you go to fucking Norway and then you back to Spain and then you go to France and then you go to North Carolina -- it's really a hard life. And then at some point some moron says, 'Well, you've been doing this for a long time. Don't you want to take a break?' I look at them and say 'Are you fucking crazy? I'm a Greek woman! This is when we get started, you fucking bitch. Are you out of your mind?' We live for a looooooong time. And in Greece women and men are not even respected until they're older than me as having anything to say. Before that they're told to keep their fucking mouths shut because you don't know anything about life and nobody wants to hear you fucking sing. That's what they're told -- and they're right! [Laughs]
It makes me think of American Idol, where a 16-year-old kid comes along and he or she doesn't really know anything about anything, can barely sing, and then they're handed a record contract.
It's unbelievable. I don't know about American Idol because I haven't seen it -- but I've heard about it. A lot of the pop singers that are already out there -- it's like America has become this pedophilic culture. You see the pop music scene featuring people who don't really sing at all but who just sort of stand there and have everything done on tape and stand looking like little girls.
What about Britney, then?
Oh, I'll always love Britney. My ex-boyfriend used to work with her. He was a mastering engineer and he worked with her back when she first came out. The reason I love Britney Spears -- I don't know if it's Britney I love, I'm not really sure -- but the reason I love her voice so much is that it's not really human. I know a lot about electronic music -- you have a very small vocal signal which is interfaced with a lot of signal processing stuff to tune it -- because she sings out of tune. So you have harmonizers and these different signal processing instruments and by the time they get through with it all the voice is not human. It sounds like a cockroach. And I love that sound because it's so unique. So it sounds like -- [tries to imitate Britney's voice for a second or two]. I can't do it, but it's such a funny little sound that I like it. One of my favorite science fiction films is a film called Squirm and it's kind of the revenge of the radioactive worms in the South -- I don't know where in the South, it could be Alabama. So they took these worms that they had and put through electroshock. They'd put water on them and they shocked them -- and they got the sound of them. It's horrifying. And they interfaced that with some really sleazy analog synthesizers. I like Britney for all the wrong reasons -- I like her because there's a total pedophilic worshipping station there but it sounds like radioactive worms! It doesn't sound like anything else. For example -- the singers who want to sing like Whitney -- they all sound the same. They sound like Whitney -- and Whitney still sounds better than all of them, especially when she's on crack. She still sounds better. But that's me -- I just have a perverted sensibility of voices for my own reasons. I don't like to be bored.
Guilty Guilty Guilty (Caroline Records/Mute Records) is available for purchase at music retailers and iTunes.